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The lucrative business of campus speeches

$110,000 to hear Katie Couric speak on graduation day? How do colleges snag these celebrity speakers? And, more importantly, how do these cash-strapped universities pay for them?
Image: U.S. first lady Michelle Obama attends a high school graduation ceremony in Washington
When Michelle Obama agreed to speak at the University of California-Merced, commencement costs increased by about $600,000. Jason Reed / Reuters
/ Source: The Big Money

So, it's college commencement season – the time when hapless parents and siblings sit patiently through three-hour graduation ceremonies. For them, the only saving grace may be a snappy graduation speaker. But how does a college snag an Oprah or a Jon Bon Jovi for their students' big day?

On rare, fortunate occasions, a school administration can call on alumni contacts and pull a high-level string. But most celebrities – even the ones who don't take cash – won't stop by out of the goodness of their hearts alone.

Elite universities often entice speakers with honorary degrees and awards. But the irony here is that large universities with big endowments like Harvard or Princeton – the ones that actually could afford to pay for their speakers – usually don't have to. The allure of a fancy title is enough for many. Once reserved for a particular achievement, the honorary degree has evolved into a means of eschewing cash payouts.

Which raises the third option: money. While a famous speaker like Bill Cosby will often waive his fee – which Michael Frick, president of Speakers Platform, estimates hovers above $75,000 – not all celebrity talkers are so generous. And with "mid-range" speakers pulling in obscene amounts of cash for their typical engagements, a non-waived fee can prove prohibitively expensive.

Yet even in these cash-strapped times, many colleges are willing to dole out megabucks for the right speaker. Georgia Gwinnett College has only been open for three years, but the school shelled out $9,000 in security fees for U.S. Army General David Petraeus to speak at its graduation this year. When former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke at High Point University's 2005 graduation, NPR reported that the appearance could set the school back about $75,000.

Why do schools do it? To be impressive, mostly, says Frick, an expert in the industry. Big names draw big attention – and, sometimes, donations. Frick says a famous name can, in some instances, inspire alumni to donate. When an alumnus hears about a prestigious speech at the ol' alma mater, he or she might feel compelled to chip in, said Frick.

Smaller, private colleges are perhaps under even greater pressure to bring in a celebrity speaker; after dropping a mound of cash on their child's private degree, parents expect to see someone noteworthy.

Roping in a superstar can also backfire. University of Oklahoma drew a massive amount of unwanted attention when it handed over approximately $110,000 to hear Katie Couric speak. Couric didn't come out smelling like roses herself. Yes, the funds came from a private donation. But even so, this scenario begs the question: Why didn't this private donor put the cash toward a scholarship fund? And with the flak the university received, can it really count on a flood of subsequent donations?

Even a payout that's modest by comparison can mean bad PR for a school on a tight budget. Florida A&M University nabbed attention this year when it shelled out $23,000 for its commencement lineup. True, Soledad O'Brien accepted a sensible $3,000 honorarium and Bill Clinton waived his usual speaking fee – but just getting the former president and his entourage to the school cost $17,000.

This number may pale in comparison with Oklahoma's, but for a school that recently announced it may lose $13 million to $15 million from its budget, paying thousands of dollars for a commencement speaker understandably raises eyebrows.

Turns out, even if you're not paying for the speaker, fees can go through the roof. When First Lady Michelle Obama agreed to speak at the University of California-Merced (the youngest in the UC system) this spring, commencement costs increased by approximately $600,000,according to a report from the Chronicle of Higher Education. The biggest expenditure was $300,000 for a live transmission feed to broadcast the event to accommodate the many people who wanted to see the first lady but weren't given seating.

Obviously, commencement season isn't the only time when celebrities and politicians draw big bucks from campuses. There was more trouble in Oklahoma in 2007, when Giuliani reportedly decimated the Oklahoma State University's annual speakers' budget with his $47,000 bill. The rider of demands accompanying his contract was nothing to sniff at, either – after all, what's a cool 50 grand if it doesn't come with a nice view from your hotel room? And who could forget the 2007 John Edwards speech debacle? Certainly not UC-Davis, which paid $55,000 to hear a speech about poverty.

So before you feel too jealous of those schools getting pearls of wisdom from the top 10 "least snooze-worthy" commencement speakers, remember that pearls can be really expensive.